A year into his time in Paris, Baldwin is arrested for receiving stolen goods. This happens thanks to an American tourist Baldwin had met twice in New York. Baldwin is living in a “ludicrously grim” hotel, and he spends most of his days in a café where he drinks large amounts of coffee followed by large amounts of alcohol. One day the visitor from New York finds him there and complains about the state of his own hotel. Although they do not get along particularly well, Baldwin promises to find the man a room in his hotel. Baldwin had come to Paris with $40 and no knowledge of the French language or culture. At the time, he did not realize that French institutions were “outmoded, exasperating, completely impersonal, and very often cruel.” When the American tourist moves into Baldwin’s hotel, he steals sheets from his old hotel out of spite, and Baldwin borrows some, as his own are dirty.
Baldwin illustrates the way in which—particularly when one is in a foreign country—one comes to spend time with people in a somewhat random fashion. Baldwin does not like the American tourist particularly much, but they have a preexisting affinity simply on the basis of both being foreigners from the same place. While there are undoubtedly positive sides to this phenomenon, there are also negative ones, as this chapter will show. Baldwin’s vulnerability is emphasized by the lack of money and knowledge he brought with him to Paris, an ominous sign about what is to follow.
On the night of 19th December, Baldwin is sitting alone in his room and decides to visit the American tourist. He finds two French policemen in the American’s room; he doesn’t understand their conversation but believes they are looking for a “gangster.” However, they then ask to see Baldwin’s room, and upon entering they immediately seize the other hotel’s sheet and arrest Baldwin. As he and the American are led out of the hotel, Baldwin asks the policemen if the situation is very serious, and one replies: “No… It’s not serious.” Baldwin thinks this means he will be released before dinner, but this is not the case. He begins to feel nervous; he thinks that French policemen seem to be no better or worse than American police, but the problem with French police is that he cannot understand them. He is held overnight and he continues to miscommunicate with the police officers. The next day he is interrogated and begins to feel dizzy as a result of not having eaten for so long. He wonders how long it will take for his friends in Paris to notice he is missing.
While the French policemen do not necessarily treat Baldwin with much hostility, they are nonetheless a highly threatening presence. This is both due to them being police, and because Baldwin cannot understand what they are saying. Even when he comprehends the literal meaning of the words, this does not convey what the policemen are actually telling him. This misunderstanding is a powerful illustration of the way in which culture shapes meaning. As Baldwin shows, the way that people communicate is culturally-specific, and communication is often entirely inaccessible to people who do not belong to that culture.
Later, Baldwin is fingerprinted, and his photograph is taken. He is then driven to a prison called Fresnes, 12km outside of Paris. The American tourist is sent to another prison, and as soon as he is gone Baldwin misses him, because he is the only person who knows that Baldwin is telling the truth and not guilty. Everyone else in Baldwin’s cell has committed only petty crimes; there are two North Africans, from whom Baldwin feels alienated. The reality of prison is far worse than what Baldwin had ever imagined. The day before Christmas Eve Baldwin is taken to trial; however, after being forced to wait in various cells, he is told that he will not in fact be tried that day. At this point, Baldwin realizes that the only person in Paris who will be able to help him is an American patent attorney for whom he used to perform administrative work. Baldwin is informed that his trial date has been set back to December 27th.
In this passage, Baldwin conveys the way in which faceless, impenetrable, and seemingly nonsensical bureaucracy can be far more dangerous and intimating than direct aggression. In situations of interpersonal conflict, it is at least usually clear why the opposing party is hostile and what they want. In the bureaucracy of the prison, Baldwin is not able to even understand what is happening to him, let alone fight against it. Whether or not he is even guilty becomes meaningless, subsumed beneath the opaque and disorganized process of awaiting his trial. There is a clear sense that, if they chose to, the authorities could simply detain him indefinitely.
An old man in Baldwin’s cell, who had been arrested for petty larceny, is acquitted. As he waits to be released, he asks Baldwin if there is anything he can do for him. At first Baldwin responds “No,” before giving him the phone number of the American attorney. The next day, the attorney comes to visit and promises Baldwin that everything will be all right; he will ensure Baldwin is released soon and make sure he gets a good Christmas dinner. On Christmas Day, Baldwin asks to go to mass, hoping to hear music. Instead he is placed in a grim, freezing cubicle where he listens to a priest preach about Christ’s love through a slot. On the 27th, Baldwin is tried and acquitted. The story of Baldwin’s case evokes laughter in the courtroom; however, this laughter makes Baldwin uneasy, as it is the laughter of people who believe they will always be at a safe remove from pain and wretchedness.
Baldwin’s bizarre experience of going to “mass” in prison conveys much about Baldwin’s impression of Christianity in general. The priest speaks about Christ’s love, yet the wall dividing him from Baldwin—as well as Baldwin’s confinement within the prison in the first place—highlights the profound lack of love that defines life within Christian countries. Rather than operating according to a logic of acceptance and forgiveness, the French nation incarcerates and punishes its inhabitants for crimes as minor as stolen hotel sheets. Particularly in this moment, Baldwin’s suspicion of the church appears well-founded.